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Carlson: Virginia's ex-governor wages his last campaign

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

RICHMOND, Va. – Bob McDonnell arrived Monday at the federal courthouse in Richmond, a few blocks from the mansion he once occupied as Virginia governor, to finally present his defense on charges of corruption.

Shorn of the security detail and large staff he once enjoyed, and about 20 pounds lighter, he looked vulnerable.

“I haven’t seen you since you took over chairmanship of the Republican Governor’s Association,” I said by way of reintroduction.

“That was a long time ago,” he said. “I have a few more gray hairs.”

It was only 2012, but it does seem like a lifetime since McDonnell was a rising star among Republican governors, who frequently campaigned with presidential nominee Mitt Romney and was a potential presidential candidate himself. Now McDonnell spends his days in court as one witness after another says he and his wife, Maureen, took $177,000 in cash and gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., chief executive officer of supplement maker Star Scientific, who wanted the governor’s help in introducing and getting approval for its nutritional product Anatabloc.

To defend himself, McDonnell is using his wife as a human shield, claiming she had a crush on Williams, who manipulated her with gifts.

To that end, his major defense witness Monday, former Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly, called Maureen McDonnell “difficult, demanding and diva-ish.” The former first lady has gone from a paragon of family values whose husband adored her to Lady Macbeth bringing disgrace to their doorstep. Kelly was so emotional in her defense of the “Boy Scout” she worked for since she was at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, the judge stopped the proceedings until a clerk could find a box of Kleenex.

You use what you have. McDonnell doesn’t have the moxie of the three other governors now in the crosshairs of one investigation or another. Texas Governor Rick Perry leads with his new “Mad Men” eyewear and swagger. Hours after he was indicted for vetoing state funds to the Public Integrity Unit, he went on TV to explain that he did so after District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who was arrested on drunken-driving charges and behaved so badly she was fitted with a spit guard by police, refused to resign.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo went mean, scowling and threatening, insisting that the commission he set up to investigate corruption in state government wasn’t authorized to investigate him. It was within his authority to disband the commission he created.

As for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he was born to fight. Bravado and the slow machinery of multiple investigations keep him swinging.

McDonnell is white bread compared to these others, an archconservative who wrote a thesis about women staying in the kitchen and proposed legislation that would have them undergo vaginal probes before an abortion. Except for taking his nondescript glasses on and off and smoothing his immovable helmet of hair, he doesn’t react even when his wife is savaged.

He allowed after the first day of his defense that he found the description of his wife “troubling,” but his whole defense is dependent on the jury buying that they were so estranged he had no idea about the Williams relationship and the swag that came with it, although a pricey leather bag of golf clubs Williams gave McDonnell sits near the jury box as a reminder that he might have. The crazy wife defense is two-pronged and could serve to get her off as well if the jury swallows it: Nothing “official” was done for Williams in return for his largess. Maureen McDonnell’s acts, however greedy and ill-advised, are unofficial and not actionable.

Kelly followed the defense playbook almost perfectly. The governor asked no one to do anything for Williams (three Cabinet secretaries would later say the same thing). McDonnell knew nuttin’ about nuttin’ but simply showed up to meet the demands of a schedule put together by others. He was cordial to Williams only insofar as he was “Bob for Jobs,” a cheerleader for any business that could hire Virginians.

All the defense witnesses crying over an unstable spouse burdening a busy husband and staff who barely knew Williams might not be enough to overcome some smoking guns summed up by the prosecution on Friday. The day after the McDonnells drove Williams’ Ferrari convertible back to the mansion from a weekend at Williams’ vacation house, Williams got a much sought after meeting with a top aide to secretary of health and human resources, who went reluctantly at the “governor’s request.” It was only after the governor learned of the investigation that the governor faxed revisions to a federal credit union loan application reflecting as a liability, for the first time, $120,000 in loans from Williams (one for $20,000 took one phone call from the governor to Williams) which the prosecution calls evidence of “fraud and concealment.” He also rushed to give back the Oscar de la Renta gown, the engraved Rolex and the clubs in the corner of the courtroom.

While Mr. McDonnell chats politely in the hallway, there’s a steely inscrutability to the silent Mrs. McDonnell that deepens the mystery of whether she’s on board for this defense. The McDonnells are being tried together but have separate counsel. Maureen McDonnell reportedly lives in the couple’s house; no one knows if Bob McDonnell lives there in “War of the Roses” mode. Kelly gave a clue when her effort to paint the pair as cold to each other inadvertently revealed that, as recent as late spring, the two were entertaining friends at dinner in the family house. Happy couples are cold to each other under pressure of getting food to the table. It’s a long way from that to a husband signing on to a defense that throws his wife and mother of his five children to the wolves unless she’s in on it.

This case, unlike others that have gotten governors in trouble recently, confirms the fear of the public that the rich are different from you and me. A main argument – that all the gifts were for naught in that Williams didn’t ultimately get the approval he sought–- eats away at the already shaky confidence people have in their public officials. Failure should be no defense. Whether or not they succeed, those with money get in the door that’s closed to those without.

• Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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